As the victory in the Battle of Saraighat in 1671 had a far-reaching impact on the northeastern region and beyond, similarly, the defeat of the Mughals signalled the beginning of the downfall of the Mughal sultanate in India
Had it not been for the victory at the Battle of Saraighat in 1671 against the Mughals by ace Ahom General Lachit Barphukan, the cultural and civilisational demolition of North East India would have been catastrophic. Not just territorial, the demographic changes that might have occurred following a victory for Emperor Aurangzeb would have resulted in a completely different and depressing historical narrative. General Lachit Barphukan did not just save the people around him at that time but many generations to come.
Lachit Barphukan and the Hindu, non-Hindu debate
Whether it is the desperation of Left Liberals or another shot in the blind by the pseudo-secularists camp, the moment the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the BJP-led state government in Assam decided to observe the 400th birth anniversary of Lachit Barphukan in a grand manner in their respective ways, the row over the Ahom general’s religious beliefs was needlessly triggered. Some went on to say that Lachit was ‘Lachit’ and not a Hindu whereas the ultimate aim of the events is to create awareness about the Ahom general as a national icon and not which god or goddess he prayed to.
“The British education policy which was implemented in India in 1835 gave us wrong notions about religion. They made religion equivalent to ‘dharma’. What we understand by ‘dharma’ in our Indian culture, it is hard to find an equivalent English word. In the Indian context, the meaning of ‘dharma’ is much broader. Religion at best defines a path to seek God in a certain way or at times identifies a community,” said Akhil Bharatiya Itihas Sankalan Yojana, executive member, Hemanta Dhing Mazumdar. He is also the Zonal Organising Secretary, North-East Bharat, Akhil Bharatiya Itihas Sankalan Yojana.
“We were given to understand by the British that if someone dons a tilak or wears a dhoti or visits a temple or a church then the person is following religion. This is actually a very wrong conception of ‘dharma’. In the Indian tradition, the meaning of ‘dharma’ is completely different. In the Indian context, ‘dharma’ is the duty, it is the responsibility. If a father is ensuring proper nurture and education for his child he is following the ‘dharma’ as a father. This has nothing to do with whether he visits a temple or a mosque. The father may be an atheist too but he is following his ‘dharma’ as a father by ensuring proper upbringing for his child. This has nothing to do with how he prays, who he worships or if he doesn’t pray at all,” he said.
“The way of worshipping is a religion, not ‘dharma’. If a son fails to take care of his parents in their old age, he may be a religious individual but he has ignored his ‘dharma’ as a son,” said Mazumdar.
“There is a Sanskrit saying — Ekam Sat Vipra Bahudha Vadanti — ‘One God Is Worshipped In Different Names’. The Ahoms consider themselves as descendants of Lord Indra. So is there any difference between their concept and that of the Hindus? Maybe in names but nothing more. Lord Shiva may be Mahadev for some and Kaal Bhairav for others,” the Akhil Bharatiya Itihas Sankalan Yojana, executive member said.
Led by Tai prince Sukaphaa, the Ahoms who came to Assam in 1228, had their religion based on ancestor worship — Ban-Phi where animal sacrifice is needed and Phuralung where no animal sacrifices are made. The Ahoms also have a concept of heaven although no hell exists according to their beliefs.
The irony of the situation is such that when an RSS event was organised at the Talatal Ghar (an 18th-century palace and military base located in the erstwhile Ahom kingdom) in Sivasagar in Assam, few individuals and organisations called a priest to purify the palace using milk as per Hindu rituals.
“Isn’t what they did contradictory to what they preach? It is not that Assam became a part of India after 1228 or in 1826 when the Treaty of Yandabo was signed ending the first Anglo-Burmese War and beginning the British rule in Assam. Assam was always part of India as Pragjyotishpur or Kamrupa during Kirat dynasty rule before finally becoming Assam or Axom much later. Didn’t King Bhagadatta of Pragjyotisha fight the Mahabharata war along with the Kauravas? Those who are trying to consider Assam as a separate entity independent of India are of a separatist mentality,” said Mazumdar.
The debate over whether Lachit Barphukan was Hindu or not is rather uncalled for because the motive of the battle was about restoring the pride of the Ahom kingdom. It was neither a jihad nor a crusade.
“Lachit Barphukan did not go out to fight the Mughals as a Hindu. Hinduism is a way of life. Lachit Barphukan believed in Hindu gods and goddesses and his army completely belonged to different panthas of the Hindu religion. They came together and worshipped at the Maa Kamakhya Temple in Guwahati before they went for the battle. Lachit Barphukan also took guidance from many astrologers and set out for battle at an auspicious time. They prayed and made sacrifices to the gods before meeting the Mughals in the final battle in 1671. From that angle, Lachit Barphukan is definitely a Hindu braveheart and there is no doubt about it,” said Dr Raktim Patar, an assistant professor of History at Gargaon College in Assam and also a member of the Akhil Bharatiya Itihas Sankalan Yojana, Assam chapter.
Seeking to put the Hindu and non-Hindu debate over Lachit Barphukan to rest, Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said at a press conference on Monday, “I would say Lachit Barphukan is an Ahom braveheart because he belonged to the Ahom community, an Assam braveheart because he was an Assamese, and an Indian and global braveheart because there are very few whose bravery can be compared to his. If he was a Hindu, he was a Hindu braveheart and if he was a Muslim he was a Muslim braveheart. It all depends on the people who want to invoke which identity. It is for the historians to decide. We are paying homage to him as a warrior.”
Needless Chhatrapati Shivaji-Lachit Barphukan row
A huge furore happened a year back when RSS from its official Twitter called Lachit Barphukan as the Shivaji of Assam.
“Not only the people of Assam were concerned about the Mughal hegemony but even Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj from Maharashtra was also worried. There is a description in our ‘Buranjis’ that there was an exchange of letters between Chakradhwaj Singha and Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj. In his letters, Chhatrapati Shivaji constantly encouraged Chakradhwaj Singha to fight the Mughals. Similarly, Chakradhwaj Singha also took inspiration from Shivaji’s success against the Mughals. The war was not confined to Assam. It was a war against Mughal atrocities perpetrated by Emperor Aurangzeb because of his fanatic thinking. It was a strong reply to Mughal imperialism. Both the Maratha power and the resistance in Assam in the west and east respectively successfully resisted the Mughals,” said Patar.
Both Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj and Lachit Barphukan were contemporaries. Chhatrapati Shivaji was a king but he was never power-hungry.
“This is reflected in his famous letter to Mirza Raje Jai Singh where he expressed his desire to give him administrative responsibilities and fight the Mughals under his command. All Chhatrapati Shivaji wanted was to free his motherland. Be it Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj or Guru Govind Singh or Lachit Barphukan, the nature of their job is quite similar, that is to keep enemies at bay. Someone might compare William Shakespeare to Srimanta Sankardev or Kalidasa but these comparisons are mostly done only to drive in the context. Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj fought 276 battles in his lifetime and didn’t lose a single one. Isn’t that inspiring? For Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj or Guru Govind Singh or Lachit Barphukan, the common enemy was the Mughals and enemies of the enemy are friends. I believe if Lachit Barphukan is compared with Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, there is nothing wrong in it,” said Mazumdar.
Comparing Lachit Barphukan’s military prowess to that of Napoleon Bonaparte, Sarma said that the tendency to limit the Ahom general’s glory only to Assam and Assamese has hampered efforts to take his gallantry to the national and the world stage.
“Bhupen Hazarika is not just a musical genius in Assam. He belongs to the world. We compare him with Paul Robson. Great icons of the battlefield or music belong to the world and are inspirations to humanity. They cannot be limited to one place,” said the Assam chief minister.
Significance of Lachit Barphukan in today’s context
What was exactly in the mind of Lachit Barphukan when he went for the final Battle of Saraighat will be known only to him but one thing he knew very clearly was that a defeat would be an apocalypse. He knew very well that a victory once and for all against the ruthless Mughal expansionist empire was the only answer. In fact, the Ahom army was joined by soldiers from other tribes in the region with a single ambition in mind — to annihilate the Mughals.
“Significantly the Battle of Saraighat in 1671 against the Mughals was the first battle fought by the Ahoms together with troops from the Jaintia, Tiwa, Rabha, Koch and Garo communities. It was a concerted effort. It was a battle that was fought with a nationalistic mindset after many years. There was no concept of Assamese during that time and the communities ruled their own provinces. The Ahoms of course enjoyed the lion’s share in terms of land and clout. However, they came together to fight their common enemy which was the Mughals under the leadership of Lachit Barphukan who was the general and Chakradhwaj Singha, who was the Ahom king then,” said assistant professor Patar.
“Had they failed to resist the Mughals in the Battle of Saraighat in 1671, the Mughals would have colonised the entire North East and beyond. Many historians believe that Lachit Barphukan was among the last defenders of the land. Previously his predecessors also fought and repulsed attacks and there were more than 21 invasions by the Mughals before Lachit Barphukan came to the scene. It can be said that the intention of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb to colonise not just North East but entire SouthEast Asia was successfully foiled by Lachit Barphukan,” said Patar.
As the victory in 1671 had a far-reaching impact on the northeastern region and beyond, similarly, the defeat of the Mughals was in a way the beginning of the downfall of the Mughal sultanate in India.
“The defeat, in the long run, weakened the Mughal empire in India because many petty Hindu kingdoms drew inspiration from the war that happened in Assam and gathered the courage to stand up against the Mughals. So much so that soon after the death of Aurangzeb in 1707 the Mughal empire slowly began to disintegrate and finally collapsed in the Battle of Plassey in 1757. In a way, the Battle of Saraighat in 1671 paved the way for the end of the Mughal empire where Chakradhwaj Singha, Lachit Barphukan and the people of Assam contributed tremendously,” the Gargaon College History teacher said.
Why victory against the Mughals was hard-earned
Although the Battle of Saraighat is the biggest limelight associated with Lachit Barphukan, the war against the Mughals was not a one-day affair for the Ahoms and also for the Ahom general. The Ahoms did suffer debacles but were determined to come back strongly and restore their pride.
“People tend to think that the final battle between the Ahoms and Mughals in 1671 was the only one, but the truth is the fight against the Mughals under Lachit Barphukan’s stewardship had started way back in 1667. In between there was a debacle in the Battle of Alaboi fought between the Ahom Kingdom and the Mughal Empire around 5 August 1669. The Ahoms lost 10,000 soldiers on a single day because of the arrogance and misjudgement of Ahom King Chakradhwaj Singha. It was one of the biggest losses for the Ahoms,” the History professor said.
Even before the 1669 failure, the Ahom kingdom suffered another humiliating defeat in 1663.
“In 1663 there was a huge blow to the Ahom kingdom when the Ahoms had to surrender their capital Gargaon and Guwahati to the invading forces of Aurangzeb’s general Mir Jumla. Then Ahom king Jayadhwaj Singha was forced to sign the humiliating Treaty of Ghilajharighat compelling him to send a daughter of his to the imperial harem apart from other disgraceful compromises. It was a shame for the entire people of Assam. With the victory in 1671, Lachit Barphukan regained the lost glory of the Ahoms. He re-established the supremacy of the Ahom dynasty,” said Patar.
Lachit Barphukan’s military campaign is also a delight for war historians and a tutorial for military strategists. With minimal resources at his disposal, he not only prevented a far superior army from demolishing their defences but also vanquished them.
“Despite the drawback that Lachit Barphukan had in terms of men and material compared to the Mughals, he used the geography of Guwahati and its neighbouring areas quite dexterously to outwit the Mughals. Even the Ahom boats were smaller in size than those of the Mughals but that was no obstacle in the path of victory for the Ahoms,” the Gargaon College assistant professor said.
A phenomenon called Lachit Barphukan
Ironically though a line from an Assamese poem Lachit Phukan by Debakanta Barua known for his — ‘Indira is India and India is Indira’ — infamous comment best brings out why Lachit Barphukan is needed even more today.
Akou ebar xunuwa tumar rana aahban bani (Again give your call for battle)
Akou ebar ranga kari moru Luitor boga pani (Again we will die making he white water of Luit red)
Only this time, the enemy is different!